Truth to Power is a regular series of conversations with writers about the promises and pitfalls of movements for social justice. From the roots of racial capitalism to the psychic toll of poverty, from resource wars to popular uprisings, the interviews in this column focus on how to write about the myriad causes of oppression and the organized desire for a better world.
Rithika Ramamurthy: I want to talk about the central concept of your book, The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics in a Burning World. That is: exhaustion. Can you tell us how the term works across the material, psychological, and political dimensions of the climate crisis across the book?
Ajay Singh Chaudhary: Exhaustion is not an accidental term….It’s a connecting concept and experience. I spend a long time in the book talking about psychosocial and bodily dimensions of exhaustion that run in parallel to [the] exhaustion of ecological phenomena. One of my goals was for people to understand that one of the most miserable and relatable aspects of contemporary life is a general sense that things are going too far, too fast, and are wearing us down. This is true in places like Bangladesh, the Mediterranean, and Brazil but also in places like the United States and the rest of the world.
“One of the most miserable and relatable aspects of contemporary life is a general sense that things are going too far, too fast, and are wearing us down.”We have traditional categories of describing this dissatisfaction in life under capitalism, like alienation. But exhaustion is more specific to climate politics. Climate change is not just an “issue.” It’s too big and unprecedented for the tools we’ve inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries, so we need to change the way we think about politics to address it. We can’t just “staple” it onto other issues and say: “Here’s my tax policy, my employment policy, my inclusivity policy, and my climate policy.” It doesn’t work that way—it changes things.
RR: Your book repurposes and extends Frantz Fanon’s ideas in The Wretched of the Earth to lend strength to the idea that the wretched of the earth—the colonized—are now its exhausted. Why are feelings and mental health such an important part of your analysis?
ASC: Exhaustion is not just an ecological problem but also a psychosocial one. Fanon once said that he needed to “stretch” Marxism to understand the colonial situation—I think we have to stretch it further for climate catastrophe. For the first time, people in the Global North are experiencing what people in the Global South have understood as colonial relations for a long time. Of course, there are people in the Global North who have always experienced this kind of relationship—Black and Indigenous people in the United States for example. But there are now people experiencing this kind of direct, brutal repression who never thought that that was going to be their reality.
Beyond pure economic exploitation, the techniques and technologies of control that were developed in the Global South are being exported back to the Global North. We can look to different examples, such as the criminalization of protest or the fact that the US has the largest system of mass detention in the world—both percentage-wise and total numbers—or the accelerated targeting of climate activists, union organizers, and other radicals.
That’s part of the colonial dimension of our current crisis. But emotions are also a vital part of these phenomena. I find it strange that people across the political spectrum dismiss feelings as “fuzzy things” we don’t have to address. Feelings are the bridging material between folks and can be crucial for building solidarity in political movements. But also, the right is extremely good at mobilizing feelings. For all of the talk of “facts don’t care about your feelings,” right-wing organizing spaces are deeply emotional resonance chambers. People on the left often want to respond to this with reason, but there is a free-floating sense of things being very wrong. People are very upset in the world right now. The right is very good at directing blame for these feelings at a scapegoat—foreign powers, immigrants, and so on.
Very few people have fully formed, coherent ideologies. One of the things that Fanon—and even less radical thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes—really understood is that the building blocks of political society were basic feelings. There is no preexisting model for translating the emotional dimension of climate politics, but Fanon understood that people reach a “boiling point” when conditions of oppression reach a point where things are unbearable.
Fanon also pointed out that biological and environmental factors do influence mental health, but we need to solve the root causes. We can’t just jump to that stage—it requires struggle. Fanon understood that this struggle was deleterious to individuals: they struggle, they get hurt. Violence may be a necessary part of struggle, but it is going to leave people really messed up. He looked to find how to integrate emotional life into an active, successful political movement. It’s not going to get us a utopia, but it is a first step towards getting better.
How can we transition from that deleterious process of struggle and turn it into power? If you look at the histories of anticolonial movements—or frankly, any kinds of struggle—you often see a spillover effect, where many different kinds of people recognize that they feel the same way, even though they are very different from one another. You don’t have to be the same, speak the same language, or come from the same place. That feeling can be a great place to begin a conversation about politics.
RR: One of the first ideas of the book is that “we’re not in this together,” meaning that there is no universal subject of the climate crisis. Can you say a little bit more about this and about the challenges of building a climate constituency with this complexity in mind?
ASC: I try to address this with a little story in the second chapter, “The Extractive Circuit.” I put two characters together: amiddle-class female tech worker living and working in California and a Filipina woman who has come seeking domestic work in the United States. Compelled to stay as productive as she can, the Global North worker works harder and longer, consuming large amounts of energy and displacing everything from childcare to cleaning services onto the migrant worker from the Global South. The Global South woman has come to the US because local industries in her home country, such as fishing, have been decimated by climate change fallout; the Global North woman works longer hours to be able to keep afloat amidst rising costs, including, but not limited, to those due to local wildfires.
“Some of the things we need now are actually dreams of the past.”
There are many kinds of people who are a part of this coalition of the exhausted, and there are many different versions of these movements. Even though the paths of these two people look very different, and society forces them to have as little human contact as possible, their fates are intertwined, and they have an extraordinary set of common experiences—especially exhaustion. Many people need, ecologically and socially, a slower, more reasonable, more commodious pace of life. If we pay attention to these feelings, we can learn how a bigger and broader movement can be brought together—and quickly.
Often, we’re told that we’re living in a beautiful, dynamic world that we’ll lose if we slow down, forcing us to live in burlap sacks and eat sawdust. But capitalism is already making most of us do that. We can imagine new ideas but also recover ones that have been phased out which would have made things more livable for everyone. Some of the things we need now are actually dreams of the past.
RR: One of the most heated chapters in your book takes on the thinkers that say: socialism means taking over the machine, not turning it off—and only one kind of worker can do it. What are the negatives of this approach?
ASC: The problem with many of these thinkers is that they create a very narrow idea of the working class. They ostensibly include domestic workers, farmers, and service workers when discussing working class. But they then go on to say that these workers aren’t politically effective because they are not close to the point of production. By this argument, the only people that can be part of a politically effective climate movement are, say, unionized workers in industrial sectors, specifically in the production of electricity. But by this definition, most of the people in the world today aren’t actually working people! Doing this dismisses most of the working classes—not only in our country but worldwide.
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These thinkers also tend to dismiss systematic forms of oppression like colonialism as “moral bads” rather than as fundamental structures of capitalism. Similarly, issues such as trans rights or racial justice get set to the side as distractions. Unfortunately, this aligns too well with right-wing positions that want to demonize certain demographics or erase certain histories. When you talk to movement organizers, they will tell you that while regular working people may disagree on many issues, excluding people is not the way that they express their needs and desires. In my work as a teacher, I encounter working adults who are smart and curious. They aren’t alienated by the complexities of real-life politics.
If we’re talking about taking over the machine rather than turning it off, it’s because we are stuck in the same terms that capitalism has already forced on us. Take the debates around economic growth: people say we need green growth, we need degrowth, we need to be post-growth. The first problem is that talking about growth does not necessarily mean questioning the social good of profit (although quite a lot of degrowth thinkers do this). But the second problem is we’re accepting growth on the terms given to us by capitalist ideologues—and not just any ideologues, but economists, the grand theologians of the capitalist world. We’ve just accepted this, even though we know for a fact that growth is not the way we need to be talking about social welfare and inequality. The US has GDP growth much better than most of Europe. But it has social outcomes that are much worse than most places in Europe, parts of Central America, and Asia. Growing GDP, investing in miraculous “green” technology, maximizing profits—none of these solve the climate crisis or its effects.
Being obsessed with something like carbon capture or nuclear power, for example, is short-sighted and insufficient. Because even the climate scientists who work on carbon capture technology and are enthusiastic about it say that it’s just for mop-up duty. Similarly, nuclear power is often presented as a potential solution, but the power plants take forever to build. China, for example, really wanted nuclear to work, they put a lot of resources into it. But they basically abandoned high nuclear buildout targets because it was not practical. If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels now, it doesn’t matter. Having undying faith in technology and capitalist growth models, even on the left, is just saying that we’re going to go too slow to do anything meaningful.
Right-wing approaches to climate have already decided that, say, a billion people will die and that the billion more [who] are climate refugees are already refugees. Their plan is to simply make life nice for a subset of people in the US, to wall off Europe, and to continue doing things the way we’re doing. Jeff Bezos has even said that we could have sustainable living with technologies that already exist, but that it would be a grey, ugly, boring existence. . But we need to go beyond greenwashing capitalism, beyond staying within the same system with a different ownership model.
RR: This book is bold; it pulls no punches. It is both pedagogical and polemical: you invite the reader in and you call out “political idiocy.” Can you share a bit about how it felt to write this book and how the urgency and scope of its subject affected your style?
ASC: Before I began this book, I was much friendlier to the ideas that technology could solve our problems or that ordinary politics might be able to get us there. But when you go through work by climate researchers, predominantly in the natural sciences, the scale and interconnection of the issues really hits you—the way it encompasses so many things, the order of magnitude and temporal urgency. The fact that if we had just gotten our act together in the 1970s, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The book’s style is informed by reading thousands of natural science papers, synthetic social science ideas, and hearing what my students and folks I met through political work had to say.
All of this fueled what I tried to make a propulsive, convincing style. I had two goals. First, I wanted this to be a book that anyone could just pick up and read. They might not know every word used or thinker referenced, but there are extensive footnotes to explain that. The opening chapters include asides and definitions explaining debates and stakes, explaining what political realism is, or what ideology is, slowing things down. I wanted people to be able to pick up the book and recognize themselves when I described the extractive circuit and the way it’s ruining the world. The next shift is bridging that experience and opening to the histories of political violence or current debates about degrowth. The chapter describing the way the capitalism creates burnout and exhaustion across the world is meant to be a bridge to some of the more abstract theory.
We are in a period of intense crisis. Now is not the time to be nice about bad ideas. I know that this opens me up to criticism, but I am trying to move us in a better, clearer direction. We need to take a no-holds-barred approach, both practically in terms of political work, but also intellectually. Conjoining theory and practice is a problem as old as time, and we don’t have some of the parties and institutions we need to do it. We don’t have time to be polite in our theoretical debates, even as we should be patient and genial to anyone who is new to the subject and bringing passion and interest in doing something. That is the person I want to be gentle with, whose feelings I want to understand. The people badly wielding their power or putting out harmful ideas—I don’t need them to be comfortable.
“We are still in a position to fight for something better than mere survival.”
RR: Our conversation has focused on recentering passion as part of a strategic movement politics. How can we work better to organize the exhausted and externalize the desire for a better world?
ASC: The panoply of experiences within the matrix of exhaustion does not mean that people are incapacitated. They can do things—and one of those things is politics. This is why it is so important to address emotions. We need to attach complex, free-floating feelings to a real political project. Taking emotional life seriously doesn’t mean throwing reason on the bonfire, but it does go beyond simply understanding what’s going on. This is a horizon for politics, but it’s not a fully designed picture. It’s not for me to design—other people are going to draw the picture together. That picture is going to emerge from the struggles for a better world. That is a very classically Marxist take on utopia, but as I said before, utopia is not just in our future—it’s in our past and present.
Another thing I try to emphasize is that not everyone needs to feel hope or optimism to be politically active. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin said, revolutionary fervor is nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than liberated grandchildren. What he means by this is that people don’t just move to action by the idea that something terrible is on the horizon. They do it because there are bad things now, which exist because of the bad things we know and remember from the past. While inspiring hope is not exactly the purpose of this book, I did hope to articulate what a political model for climate change could be, and how people who are already experiencing the effects of the crisis can be drawn into or build their own movements that address these issues—and quickly. We are still in a position to fight for something better than mere survival.
RR: The Guardian published an article outlining the carbon effects of the genocide in Gaza, explaining that the aggression has caused more emissions in the past few months than 20 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations in the past year. How does what is happening in Gaza relate to the ideas you bring together in your book about colonization, capitalism, and mass death?
ASC: The current president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, recently said the following statement about the relationship between the climate crisis and Gaza: “What we see in Gaza is the rehearsal of the future.” In the book I talk about how border policing creates climate refugees, but the effects of emissions from war are also something we should think about this way.
Do you know the Arabic word sumud? It is the concept of steadfastness or perseverance. It’s often used by Palestinian people to express the idea, “We’re not going away. We’re going to resist and hold on.” To me, that is related to the exhausted. We are watching an ongoing genocide, watching warfare and combat, but we are also seeing intense steadfastness of people who have been starved, bombed, and oppressed continuously for so long. And most people in the world, even in the United States and Europe, do not support what is happening. People aren’t necessarily voicing solidarity with the Palestine people, but even average US Republicans seem to not want to pay for bombs and look terrible on the world stage.
Israel is one of the world’s major players in weapons and security manufacturing, especially in the technology space, and markets to governments, corporations, and security forces in the West. Part of the reason for this success is that their sales pitch includes their ability to say that their stock is field-tested on a population that they have successfully kept in apartheid conditions for decades. This is very attractive to geopolitical leadership and crisis management officials who are anticipating uprising against increasingly awful conditions. There are two sides of this coin: one is that the ruling classes amass weapons, technology, and infrastructure to keep capitalism going and their power intact. But the flipside is that, as we can see in Gaza, there is a possibility that people will break out of their cages and push back even against the most adverse conditions.
This is another major theme of the book. There is so much for us in the Global North, whether in participatory governance models or revolutionary activism, to learn from what is already happened or has happened in the Global South. Some people are already experiencing this in our country and have tried to lead us in that direction. But as we become more like colonized people, even in the imperial core, there is so much we should be learning, from political strategy to wind towers.